Gunter copes with small, old gym

by Christopher Kratzer
Air University Public Affairs

3/18/2011 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, GUNTER ANNEX, Ala. -- The Gunter fitness center, originally a maintenance hangar built in 1943, is the oldest fitness center in the Air Force. The facility is currently undergoing more than $250,000 in renovations, but none of them address the largest issue facing the center: space.

Charles Smith, the gym's activity manager, knows this better than anyone. He says the average fitness center has 64,000 square feet, while Gunter's has 19,000.

"We need space. Anywhere there's space, we have something there. We're bursting at the seams," Mr. Smith said. "We've got more equipment that we could bring in here, but we don't have anywhere to put it."

It's hard to meet the needs of patrons in the current facility, he said. With only one available floor in the gym, it is difficult to schedule ample time for groups. Mr. Smith thinks the answer is a new facility.

"When I was stationed here in '73, they were talking about the need for a new facility," Mr. Smith said. "When you're missing 45,000 square feet, that's a lot. It hurts."

Mr. Smith is not the only person who feels this way. The most common complaint the gym receives is the lack of space. Since space is so limited, many Gunter residents choose to do their physical training outside instead of in the facility.

"The Air Force is all about fitness, but we don't have the area to handle everyone here," Mr. Smith said.

Size is not the gym's only issue. Since the facility is a repurposed hangar, the building offers other unique challenges, according to Mickey Allen, director of the 42nd Civil Engineer Squadron.

"It is difficult to maintain an environment that is conducive to the mission. Humidity and temperature variations contribute to moisture problems, which can cause safety hazards (damp floors and equipment) or lead to mold growth," he said.

Both 42nd Air Base Wing and Air University leadership are aware of these concerns and are committed to getting approval and funding for a new fitness center, he said.

"The (fitness center) project is their number-one priority for both Maxwell and Gunter. They continue to advocate for the project with Air Education and Training Command and Air Force leadership," Mr. Allen said. "We make the best of every opportunity to show the facility to distinguished visitors. Although pictures in a briefing might help us tell the story, nothing is more effective than letting the DVs see it firsthand."

The proposed fitness center, which will cost an estimated $15.5 million, is Maxwell's highest military construction (MILCON) priority, but obtaining funding will be difficult.

"It is ... number 4 on AETC's list for MILCON projects," Mr. Allen said. "However, in this fiscally constrained environment, it is extremely difficult to get projects funded through the normal congressional approval process."

The base must compete with 18 other wings for funding for this project. Even though the gym is ranked number 4, it is unlikely to receive funding, he said. The command normally receives approval for one military construction project per year.

Even though funding for a new fitness center is unlikely in the near future, the 42nd Civil Engineer Squadron and the 42nd Force Support Squadron work hard to maintain the current facility.

"The civil engineer squadron does what it can to properly maintain the facility, given the challenges that come with a facility built in 1943 as an aircraft maintenance hangar," Mr. Allen said.

Maintenance endeavors include a $262,000 project to update all of the interior finishes. Maintenance dollars are also continually pumped into the gym's mechanical and electrical systems, according to Mr. Allen.

The 42nd Force Support Squadron works very hard to serve patrons in the current facility. "I also believe the force support squadron does an incredible job in providing the best equipment and fitness programs possible, given the limitations in facility size and functionality," he said.